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'Keep the Beat': A Youth-Driven Success Story

How teen girls in Nelson invented and run a great music fest that raises thousands for war children.

By Bill Metcalfe, 3 Aug 2012, TheTyee.ca

Sights and sounds from this year's Keep the Beat Music Festival held on July 25 in Nelson, B.C. Video by Bill Metcalfe; photos by Bill Metcalfe and Bodhan Doval.

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"I was in charge of getting tents," says Maddy Murphy, savouring her mission accomplished. "And then I was like, 'Yeah, I got those tents! Look what I can do.'"

What she'd done was find donations of several large tents to cover an outdoor silent auction, a kids' area, and a performance stage. Maddy, who is 15, belongs to a group of teenage girls who have organized and run an annual one-day music festival in Nelson B.C. for the past seven years, raising an average of $10,000 each year and donating all the proceeds to War Child Canada.

They've made it happen without charging admission, without adult help, with no connection to teachers or a school, and with almost no overhead costs.

The teenage organizers of the first Keep the Beat in 2006 came up with a simple but ingenious idea: have a music festival in a place where there is an ever-changing crowd of people already -- Lakeside Park -- and don't charge admission. Just pass the hat.

And that's what they do, although it's not a hat but several large buckets. They circulate through the crowd all day from noon until late evening while bands they've booked play free concerts on the temporary stage, while people bid on donated items at the silent auction, while kids hang out in the kids' tent, while people browse the information table and buy T-shirts and buttons, while young and old come and go, stopping in at the event for a few minutes or a few hours. It's laid-back during the day, but Keep the Beat gradually transforms around sunset into an all-age dance party. (And it ends at 10:00 p.m. to keep the neighbours happy.)

In the breaks between bands, the girls (average age 16, and yes, it's all girls -- more about that below) stand up at the mic and talk about the work of War Child Canada, an international organization that works to help children affected by war. The girls tell the audience stories of horrific abuses and uplifting successes from war-torn countries.

'It gives me hope'

Many Nelson residents are so impressed by these young women that they come every year and give generously and often emotionally.

"When I see these young people doing this, it gives me hope and it makes me proud, and sometimes it makes me cry," says one older adult member of the audience at the 2012 event on July 25. "I love donating to them. I give more than I would give to any other group. These are our own kids -- well, not mine exactly, but they're children of this community, and they're doing this for other children who really need it."

Membership in the organizing group gradually changes over the years as the older ones move on and younger ones join.

Keep the Beat festival strategy session

Keep the beat organizers meet for strategy session during this year's event. Photo: B. Metcalfe.

The War Child Canada office in Toronto is so impressed that they have twice sent someone out west to attend Keep the Beat. In 2010, Allison Rowe, Manager of Youth Action for War Child, addressed the crowd in Lakeside Park.

"Working with kids is my expertise, it's my role, and I am absolutely astounded and blown away by the youth here in Nelson. These young people are superstars. The $50,000 that Nelson has contributed to War Child Canada over the last five years is the largest contribution from any community that War Child has ever had.

"Hardly ever do adults give up control and let young people handle the cash, handle booking and contacts, work with security and all these things and the fact that it has grown to this tradition where they are passing down the torch and giving the cause to new students as they come in is really, really special."

In the case of Keep the Beat, adults didn’t have to give up control because they never had it in the first place. (There have always been a few adults in the background though, doing things that require an adult -- renting a vehicle, for instance, or signing for insurance.)

WHO'S BEHIND WAR CHILD?

When teen girls in Nelson pass the hat at Keep the Beat and audience members donate, where does the money go? War Child's "about us" page is here and its financials are here.

Outside of Nelson, there are other War Child Keep the Beat fundraising events in the country run by youth. All those are based in schools and have adult involvement.

War Child's founder and executive director, Dr. Samantha Nutt, is a world leader in the analysis of what kind of aid works and what does not. She's spent years as a physician and activist at the front lines of war zones around the world, focussing on women and children. Her 2011 book Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies, and Aid is a tirade (albeit measured and detailed) against misguided aid by governments, corporations, and many NGOs.

— B.M.

How the Beat was born

Zoey Ockenden, 22, was one of a group of four girls who in 2006 came up with the idea for Keep the Beat. She lives in Victoria now, but she was in Lakeside Park for this year's event. She watched the young organizers up at the mic telling us about War Child Canada, announcing the bands, and exhorting us to give generously, just like she had done for three years until 2008.

"Those people look really young to me now, even though I am only a few years older," she says. "When I was 15 and organizing this I didn’t realize how young I was, and how huge an event it was.

"When I was in it, we were in the moment," she says, "and we never thought about that, we just did it. It just seemed obvious. I wanted to do something, and we were inspired by the idea of social justice work. And looking back, I feel proud. I hope they do too. They inspire me to do more of that kind of work."

"It is so cool that Zoey said that," says Aisha Smith, 17, one of this year's main organizers. "For us, now, it is something that was already started, so it is easy for us to join on and keep going. I don’t know where their drive came from, but I think it is so powerful that they had that, and it has continued this long."

Young mentoring the younger

Keep the Beat keeps going because young people mentor people even younger. "This is my third year," says Kate Harvey-Vieira, 17, "and it is really interesting to see how my involvement grew as the years progressed. In the first year I did a few little odd jobs and came to meetings and hung out, and now this year I am the head of the silent auction and I feel I am very involved." Kate was also one of the main planners of the event this year, and one of the MCs.

This kind of mentorship is possible because the event is not run by adults or by a school.

"I think if it had been run by older people, I would not have actually been as motivated to join because I would not have felt as powerful or heard in the group with my opinions and my ideas," says Maddy Murphy, volunteering for the first time this year. "And being able to relate to the mentors, they are only a couple of years older but it is really inspirational because they have been doing it for so long and I think, 'I can be like that in a few years.'"

Leaders of Keep the Beat festival

Maddy Murphy, Kate Harvey-Vieira and Aisha Smith talk to the audience about War Child Canada and introduce the next band.

Aisha, who now comes across as very self-assured, says when she started in Grade 9 she was "really, really intimidated. And last year I got more comfortable and this year it was up to us, because we are the oldest ones. It's amazing. I was really scared it was not going to work out this year, but we have all worked so well together, and so I have learned you can be really self-driven but when you are self-driven in a teamwork environment it definitely has more of an effect."

"I have learned a lot about being organized and self-motivated," says Kate. "With Keep the Beat you can't wait too long to get in contact with people about the stage or to contact bands, you really need to be on it, and it is good for me because I am kind of a procrastinator, but here it’s like, if I don't do it it's not going to get done."

On the way to fame

The music at Keep the Beat (a mix of pop, rock, jazz, folk, poetry, and beats) is mostly local, drawn from Nelson's rich music scene, with some exceptions. Vancouver performers Mother Mother and Dan Mangan, neither very well known at the time, played the Keep the Beat stage in 2008 and 2009 respectively. In fact a photo of Dan Mangan, singing and hoola-hooping with some children in front of the Keep the Beat Stage, made it into War Child Canada's Annual Report that year.

DJ Adham Shaikh

'A lot of power there': Internationally known Adham Shaikh, who is based in Nelson, DJs at this year's Keep the Beat. Photo by Bodhan Doval.

Adham Shaikh, a DJ, composer, and music producer who bases his international reputation at his home in Nelson, has performed at Keep the Beat (for free like all musicians at the festival) for the past three years. This year he collaborated with Slava Doval's FolkFusion Dance Troupe for some extraordinary performances.

"Not only is it run by young people," he says, "but it creates an awareness of activism amongst young people and an awareness that we have a lot more power than we think we do. When we get together and listen to music as a community, there is a lot of power there, and these kids have shown how much resources they can raise and money they can funnel toward something that they intuitively feel is right. I just love that. I am so happy to be part of that."

It's (pretty much) a girl thing

Despite Keep the Beat being touted as a youth initiative, it’s actually female youth. Over the event’s seven years there has only been one boy in the group. Kate and Aisha say they would like to have boys and they seem mystified as to why this has not happened. Asked if high school age girls tend to be more interested in social issues and activism than girls, Kate replied without hesitation.

"Definitely. I kind of don't want to say that because it comes off as kind of rude or pretentious, like girls are better and girls care more, and of course that is not true. But I mean you go into any sort of social change group in the school -- I was a big part of Social Justice there for a few years and there was like one boy in the two years that I did that, and with Keep the Beat and with [the] Amnesty International [group in the school], it's always like that."

Aisha agrees. "I think it is because it is a kind of stereotypical situation where it's, oh the girls will do that, they care more about it. And even if there are the guys who really do care about these issues they are just way too intimidated by the girls, or scared they will get made fun of by other guys."

One of the big challenges over the years for the Keep the Beat has been getting used to asking for money.

"Sometimes I feel awkward," says Aisha. "I remember the first year, they told me go out, take the bucket, and I was so scared. I was like, no, I can't go up to people and ask them for money. But now I just know that people are really willing to give you money. But it is still a bit awkward and intimidating to do that."

War Child donation bins

Buckets of cash: Organizers say one of the skills they learn is how to request money for a good cause. Left to right: Kate Harvey-Vieira, Ayla Raabis, Katy Camilleri. Photo: B. Metcalfe.

"You have to go and stick the bucket in their face, literally," says Kate, "and that has been hard for me. That is another thing I have learned, is to get in people's faces, not in a rude way. Last year I was the MC, and toward the end of the event there was a real push to get enough money to reach our goal."

The others pushed her to go up to the mic and persuade people to give more.

"So I went up there and told everyone what’s up. It was hard, but it's something you have to do."

Doing 'something ourselves by ourselves'

Asked why they are involved in Keep the Beat, Kate says, "I think a lot of youth today see a lot of issues and we can see it is up to us to change them. This is the time, we have to start now, and we have to do something big. It is not enough to have a bake sale, you have to do something big."

Asked why it is up to the youth, and if older people are off the hook now, Aisha seemed to brush off the question. "It's a great opportunity for the youth to put something on. We could rely on the older people but I think it is the passion to do something ourselves by ourselves."

"And it's so fun, it's a music festival," says Kate. "Who doesn't love a music festival?"

Paul Landsberg is a jazz guitarist and an instructor at Selkirk College's Contemporary Music and Technology program in Nelson. He and his wife, singer Laura Landsberg, performed at Keep the Beat this year. Their daughter, 16-year-old Becca Landsberg, is one of this year's organizers.

"I'm really proud of that," says Paul after his performance. "I'm proud of all of them and the mentoring and organizing they do. This year's Keep the Beat day is only half over, and already Becca is thinking and talking about how it could go next year."  [Tyee]

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